There is nothing quite so wonderful as a perfectly seared piece of fish: Crispy crust on one side, just-barely-done meat in the center. It is one of the great tastes of the world, and it is my go-to method for cooking most any fish.
I was primarily a seafood cook for 15 years before I ever touched a piece of wild game. Fishing is in my DNA, and I am proud to say my parents taught me well how to catch all sorts of sea creatures. I did not learn this technique from them, however. I learned how to sear a fish when I was a line cook years ago. Pan-searing is a classic restaurant method of cooking fish.
The technique works on any fillet or fish steak. I am using striped bass here, but most fish will do. The only fish that don’t respond well to searing are those with lots of bones, like shad or very small fish, like sardines. Even so, I’ve seared deboned sardines and it worked OK.
It is not hard to master this skill, but there are some tips and tricks you need to know.
A few things first. Most fish have very tasty skin if it is cooked properly. Some, like triggerfish or sturgeon or swordfish, have skin so thick or rubbery that it’s essentially leather. Others, like mackerel, have skin so thin you can’t get a decent crisp on it. But ye olde fish, such as bass, perch, salmon, flounder, snapper or rock cod, have excellent skin that crisps nicely. Be sure to scale the fish (or have your fishmonger do it), but leave the skin on the fillet.
Here’s how I sear fish:
Pan Seared Fish
This method works best with boneless pieces of fish, either whole fillets with skin, or meaty portions of larger fish, which can be skinless or not. While it will work with thin fillets like those off a flounder, it’s trickier.
Prep Time: 20 minutes, to let the fish come to room temperature
Cook Time: 10 minutes, for an inch-thick piece of fish
- 4 fish fillets, about 1 1/2 pounds
- 2 tablespoons grapeseed, safflower or peanut oil, or clarified butter
- 1 tablespoon butter
- Lemon or limes for garnish
Take your fish fillets out 20 minutes before cooking and sprinkle a little salt on them. When you are ready to start cooking, set a cast-iron or steel pan (don’t use non-stick, because you can’t cook with these pans over high heat) over high heat for 1-2 minutes. You want it roaring hot.
Take a butter knife and scrape down the skin side of the fish fillet to remove any excess moisture. Pat the whole fish fillet dry with a paper towel.
Pour the oil into the center of the hot pan. Swirl this oil or butter to coat the pan and let it get hot for a minute or so. If it starts to smoke, take the pan off the heat until it stops. Place the fish fillets skin side down. If there is no skin on the fish, lay it down on the side the skin used to be on. The moment the fillets hit the pan, jiggle it so the fish doesn’t stick.
Salt the meat side of the fish. Turn the heat down to medium-high; medium if it is a thick fillet.
Using a metal spatula, press down on each fillet for 30 seconds. Fish tends to arc when it’s seared like this, and you want the skin side to brown evenly.
Don’t touch the fish. Let it cook undisturbed for at least a minute, possibly as many as 7-10 minutes, depending on whether you have a flounder fillet or a sturgeon steak. The key here is to let 2/3 of the cooking occur on the skin side. That is what crisps the skin. The thicker the fillet, the longer the cooking time, and the lower the heat.
When to turn? Look at the sides of the fish and you will see the cooked portion climb up the sides; when it is at least 1/4 up the sides, turn. A good test is to shake the pan — if the fillet moves, you can flip. Use a metal spatula to do this flipping. Be prepared to scrape the skin off the bottom, as if it were stuck. If you have done this properly it will not be stuck entirely, but a few spots will be anyway. This is a critical step.
Once you have the fish dislodged, you turn it with the help of your free hand stabilizing the fillet on the uncooked side. Gently turn.
How long now? Again, depends on the width of the fish. But remember you did 2/3 of the cooking on the other side, so give it at least a minute for flounder, 3-5 for other fish. In most cases, your pan will be very hot, so you can turn off the heat and let carryover finish the job.
Add a tablespoon of butter to the pan and swirl it so it melts quickly. Tip the pan and use a spoon to baste the fish with the butter.
When the fish is done, serve at once: Unlike meat, fish (other than swordfish and sturgeon) doesn’t like to rest. Oh, and that crispy, yummy skin? It goes on top. You worked hard for it, and you don’t want to ruin that crisp by exposing it to moisture. If you are using a sauce, it goes underneath the fish. Serve with a lemon or lime wedge on the side.
I’ve also made a video on this to help you: